On Docket: Religious Freedom vs. Drug Laws ; the Supreme Court Takes Up a Case Involving a New Mexico Sect That Could Be Important for Other Minority Religions

Article excerpt

In a case with potential important significance for minority religious groups in America, the US Supreme Court this week takes up a clash between the nation's drug laws and a statute protecting religious liberty.

At issue in the case set for oral argument Tuesday is the scope of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law requires the federal government to justify any measure that substantially burdens a person's ability to practice his or her religion.

But what happens when a religious ceremony requires consumption of a drug outlawed under the Controlled Substances Act? That is the essence of the dispute in a case called Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV).

Although the case involves the use of drugs, how the high court resolves the matter could have an impact on a wide array of religious groups in the United States that depend on a robust defense of religious liberty to practice their faith free of government interference. If the nation's drug laws are found to trump religious protections, other laws might also be applied in ways that substantially erode religious freedom, legal analysts say.

On the other hand, if religion may be invoked to easily bypass the nation's criminal laws, that could greatly complicate and undermine federal law-enforcement efforts, analysts say.

The case involves a religious sect of 130 members based in New Mexico. The group, adherents of the Brazil-based religion UDV, believes the use of sacramental tea in its ceremonies helps them connect with God. Consumption of the tea is the central ritual act of their faith. Some analysts liken it to the consecration of wine at a Roman Catholic mass or serving unleavened bread at a Passover Seder.

The problem is that the tea, made from two sacred plants found in the Amazon region of Brazil, contains a hallucinogenic substance banned in the US.

When US narcotics agents discovered this, they confiscated the group's supply of the sacramental tea as an illegal drug and barred them from importing any more from Brazil. The group sued, claiming the government was infringing on their religious rights by blocking a fundamental aspect of their religious worship and threatening to prosecute them should they continue to use the sacramental tea.

A federal judge and federal appeals court agreed with the group and issued a preliminary injunction against the government. The court ordered the government to accommodate the UDV members by allowing them a religious exemption from the drug laws. The courts ruled that such actions were necessary under RFRA.

Government's case

In appealing to the Supreme Court, the Bush administration argues that the government has a compelling interest in the uniform enforcement of the nation's drug laws.

Congress determined that a categorical ban on this hallucinogenic substance was required to help protect the health and safety of Americans, including the followers of UDV, from detrimental effects, government lawyers say. …